By Matt M. Joye
Staff Writer

The Arctic Ocean has been largely preserved from human impact for the majority of human history. Even after much of the rest of the world had been explored and exploited for resources, the Arctic was protected from the demands of the industrial revolution by a combination of icy climate and Cold War politics. But in the last two decades demand for oil, technological innovation and the effects of climate change have opened up the Arctic, and the estimated 80 billion barrels of oil it contains, to exploration [1]. Arctic nations—like the United States and Russia—and multinational oil companies see untapped wealth, while environmentalists and advocacy groups fear the environmental catastrophe that could spill forth from such drilling [2].

It is in light of this clash that the environmental group Greenpeace sailed its ship, the Arctic Sunrise, to the Pechora Sea off the coast of Russia last month. Echoing a similar protest in 2012, the activists aimed to hang a banner on the Prirazolmnaya oil rig, operated by Russian oil conglomerate Gazprom. This time, company officials and Russian authorities were more prepared: shortly after two Greenpeace crew members were rebuffed in their attempts to scale the rig, Russian authorities used helicopters and coast guard vessels to board the vessel, and seize the ship and its entire crew. The activists were initially charged with piracy (which carries a 15-year sentence), imprisoned in the Russian city of Murmansk and denied bail. Those counts have now been dropped in favor of hooliganism charges, which could lead to a maximum of seven years in prison. There is still the possibility of additional charges as the process unfolds

The subsequent international attention to the plight of the Arctic (the impact on the 30 crew members and their families notwithstanding) is exactly what Greenpeace wanted given the danger perceived. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico spilled 200 million gallons of oil and demonstrated the environmental and social damage that can accompany such an event [3]. BP has paid more than $18 billion in cleanup and reparations, and the environmental impacts are still not fully quantified, affecting marine life, fisheries, shorebirds, beaches and coastal populations regardless of their direct economic connection to the Gulf [4]. Prior emergency planning, spill prevention and clean-up techniques were in many ways revealed to be overstated and ineffective in a region with vastly more resources and oversight agencies. Russia’s oil infrastructure is not nearly as modern, and as many as 30 million barrels of oil spill from aging pipelines and storage facilities every year [5].

But there are differences between Deepwater Horizon and Prirazolmnaya. The Gazpom rig sits in waters only 66-feet deep, as opposed to the more than 4000 feet of ocean that stood between Deepwater Horizon and the ocean floor [6]. Additionally, Deepwater Horizon was a semi-submersible platform, meaning it floated above the drill site while tethered to the seabed, while Prirazolmnaya is a heavy concrete structure that rests on the seafloor, largely because of its sheer mass. Russian officials are quick to point out that the drilling apparatus is contained entirely within the caisson, and that sophisticated sensors in offloading nozzles—which fill tankers with oil for transport to shore—shut off if the ship pulls away from the rig or drifts unexpectedly.

Environmentalists counter that the Arctic provides a unique combination of pristine environment and daunting challenges. Greenpeace alleges sea-ice is present for eight-months out of the year, and winds can reach 50 miles-per-hour. Even without damaging the rig itself, the unloading of oil requires tankers that must face these hardships. And the combination of surface ice and cold temperatures would mean any spill could be inaccessible under solid ice, or cluster at air-holes that marine mammals use to breathe [7]. Ultimately the rate of dispersal for a spill would be significantly hampered by Arctic current flow restrictions and the lack of micro-organisms that consume oil over time, as exhibited by the remnants of the Exxon Valdez spill still present over two decades later [8].

Russian actions have provoked a strong international response. The crew of the Arctic Sunrise hail from 18 different countries, and leaders from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to German chancellor Angela Merkel have voiced concerns over the tough stance of the Murmansk court [9]. A letter signed by 11 Nobel Laureates, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s spokesperson responded that the letter had the “wrong addressee,” alluding to the fact that the activists’ fate was not in Putin’s hands, but that of the Russian judicial system.

The most active protest has come from the Dutch government. The Netherlands, home to two of the Greenpeace members, and under whose flag the Arctic Sunrise is registered, was the first nation to take legal action on behalf of the ship and its crew. Appealing to the UN Tribunal for the Law of the Sea which oversees the Convention of the same name, the Dutch have sought the immediate release of both crew and vessel. A subsequent diplomatic tit-for-tat, with a Russian diplomat arrested briefly in the Netherlands and a Dutch diplomat tied up in his Moscow flat with an anti-gay image drawn on his mirror, has threatened good relations between the two states in what was to be a year of celebration of the 400th anniversary of bilateral ties. Instead, the Russian authorities have not exactly acquiesced, proceeding with the trials and denying bail in what could be a protracted wait for the activists in Russian prisons with trial proceedings months away.

Though the potential consequences of the standoff seem far beyond what Greenpeace bargained for with its actions, the result has played into the organization’s political goals. Greenpeace has a history of actions that provoke direct confrontation. It is this conflict that draws the attention of the international community to its causes, bringing in donations and public support. The publicity headaches for its opponents—draining their public relations capital and souring their corporate or national image—can impact the bottom line and ultimately play the “stick” to less combative measures like negotiations and lobbying efforts. In June of 2011, 18 Greenpeace activists were arrested boarding the drilling rig Leiv Eiriksson off the coast of Greenland, and subsequently charged with trespassing and breach of a security zone [10]. Claiming to be searching for the rig’s oil spill response plan, which was not available for public review (Arctic Council guidelines require rig-specific response plans to be publicly available), Greenpeace was able to use such direct action to place a spotlight—and generate sensational media coverage—to an aspect of environmental safety of which many were patently unaware [11]. Though prolonged incarceration is not Greenpeace’s professed goal for the ‘Arctic 30,’ it is precisely this possibility that has generated international outcry and support, and drawn attention to the environmental impacts of offshore oil drilling in a part of the world few—save a small circle of oil industry beneficiaries and environmentalists—paid much heed.

Russia’s position is similarly intractable. More than 72 million tons of oil are thought to exist in the Prirazolmnaya oil field [12]. The Russian economy is dependent on oil development not only to ensure growth targets are met, but because oil is also critical to the federal budget and to monetary policy [13]. With the potential for the erosion of popular support for Putin should the economy falter or inflationary pressures spin out of control, turning back from oil exploration is not an economically or politically viable option [14]. In addition, foreign investment is seen as a key element in a country with deteriorating industrial production capabilities and few domestic investors sufficiently well capitalized to tap new resource wealth or create new industries, cementing Russia’s post-Soviet position as a “petro-state” rather than a developed one [15]. However, international companies have been hesitant to invest due to uncertainties in the investment climate within Russia [16]. With long-term reforms politically risky and potentially unpalatable to Putin’s domestic constituency, the value of a showdown with Greenpeace—demonstrating Russia’s willingness to protect corporate interests from detractors—may present a short-term public relations victory to the international corporate investors Russia so desperately needs.

The recent reduction in the severity of the charges suggests that there may still be a face-saving resolution. Either an international ruling that Russia is obligated to respect, or negotiations that are likely under way across several diplomatic channels, could produce a palatable ending to the standoff. Greenpeace’s gambit has drawn the attention of the world to the plight of the Arctic, but all the while its activists sit in Murmansk jails. Russia may well have dissuaded such interference in the future, but the longer the spotlight continues to shine on the ‘Arctic 30’ the more its Arctic aspirations come under international scrutiny. A compromise may be forthcoming, but neither side is backing down from the larger fight anytime soon.

Photo by Valya Ergoshin

1. Short, Jeffery and Susan Murray. “A Frozen Hell.” Nature 472 (2011): 162-163.
2. Ibid.
3. Steiner, Rick. “Arctic Oil Drilling: A Risky Choice.” Editorial. Ecologist 40, no. 29 (Nov 2011): 2.
4. Ibid.
5. Bawden, Tom. “’Russia has sent us a clear signal. We need a more creative way to get our story across.’” The Independent (Oct 21, 2013): 12.
6. Short, Jeffery and Susan Murray. “A Frozen Hell.” Nature 472 (2011): 162-163.
7. Steiner, Rick. “Arctic Oil Drilling: A Risky Choice.” Editorial. Ecologist 40, no. 29 (Nov 2011): 2.
8. Short, Jeffery and Susan Murray. “A Frozen Hell.” Nature 472 (2011): 162-163.
9. Bawden, Tom. “’Russia has sent us a clear signal. We need a more creative way to get our story across.’” The Independent (Oct 21, 2013): 12.
10. “Active Opposition.” Oil Spill Intelligence Report 11 (Aug 2011): 4.
11. Ibid.
12. “Greenpeace insists on peaceful character of its act against Gasprom platform.” ITAR-TASS News Agency (Sep 18, 2013). Lexis-Nexis (Oct 23, 2013).
13. Aleksashenko, Sergey. “Russia’s Economic Agenda to 2020.” International Affairs 88, no. 1 (2012): 40-42.
14. Ibid. 37
15. Gustafson, Thane. Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia. Cambridge, Harvard UP (2012): 482.
16. Ibid. 31


  1. […] M. Joye · in UCSD Prospect Journal · Leave a comment Originally published in the UCSD Prospect Journal on October 25, […]


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